Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Decision Making Process

I want to delve just a little into philosophy. This may seem out of place, but this particular concept very much drives how I see nature and especially the relationships between organisms.

We as humans put great stock in our conscious mind. Some animals have been shown to have a sense of self. Others do not. But thus far no animal has been shown definitively to be conscious. We know that we are. So that sets us above the animals, right? Certainly the conscious decision is the highest form of decision and the most powerful of all the possible decision making processes, right? Let's look at a few of your daily decisions.

What did you decide to wear when you got dressed today? Well, it depended on your plan, what you were going to do today, so I'd say that one was definitely conscious.

How did you decide what route to take to work today? Well, if you have been at the job more than a few months, it was probably based on habit. But habit is really a shortcut, right? You made the same conscious decision so many times that you don't really need to make it again. It becomes habit. So that one qualifies as a conscious decision.

What about when you said yes when that oh-so-attractive person asked you out? That was a conscious decision, right? Well, first of all, we should look at why you would go out with ANYONE. Relationships can be complicated, right? You have to let them in, trust them, risk rejection and pain and, worst of all, share your stuff. So the CONSCIOUS decision seems to be pointing to not having a relationship at all. What's that? Loneliness, you say? Good point. So there is something inside of you telling you that you won't be happy unless you have that special someone in your life. It won't LET you be happy. It is making the decision for you. That would be the hormones. They make the decision for you that you want to be with another person, and enforce the decision through emotions like desire and unhappiness. But why would the hormones make this decision for you? Well, that comes down to evolution. There is a need to make more people and a push is necessary. So evolution is capable of making decisions as well, too, and the decisions that evolution makes drive our hormones, which drive our emotions, which drive our decisions.

Okay, so we've answered why we decided to date at all, but why did we say yes to THAT person. Well, because he's interesting, intelligent and shares many of the same views that you have, leading you to believe that intellectual compatibility is a very real possibility, right? Well, given those qualities in a short, dumpy, shapeless person whose nose happens to be on the side of his head for some odd reason and NONE of those qualities in a person who is smoking hot and dreamy, nearly everyone out there would pick the latter. But why? A misplaced nose would make kissing easier, right? This is where instinct comes in. Instinct tells us what is attractive. It lays down the guidelines of symmetry and proportions. It also tells us which traits, like confidence, are important to success in life. Take the ubiquitous example of the "bad boy," the guy preferred by most women. This preference is so strong, in fact, that calling a man who considers you a love interest "nice" is about the worst thing you can call him. So you look at a man and it is obvious that he will make your life very interesting, probably by cheating on you, walking out on you, and hurting you emotionally and maybe physically. The conscious mind is screaming "NO", right along with your parents and all of your friends. Yet those calls go completely unheeded in the hormonal rush that says "YES, for the love of God, YES." In this case, instinct has used hormones to make the decision for you. Consciousness didn't stand a chance. Sure, your conscious mind could manage to speak up and override the decision, but instinct has its thugs and will enforce the decision through a few things called "misery" and "regret." So why does instinct want us to seek out this type of person? Again, it comes down to evolution. Evolution has determined that this type of person is most likely to make us successful. But will they make us happy? Evolution doesn't care about happy. It uses happy as a tool. It cares about success. Success is defined by continued existence of your species.

Yes, I know, I am anthropomorphizing evolution. Just go with it, okay?

Let's move on to another decision you might think you make. What did you decide to have for dinner last night? First of all, let's go back to why you decided to have dinner last night. That could come down to habit (because it's dinnerTIME, duh), which is a conscious decision, or hunger, which is a hormonal impulse. But why is it dinnertime? Well, that habit is born of necessity. "Because that's when I get hungry." Again, back to hormones.

So what are our options? How about a lovely plate of hay? Maybe a yummy dead animal that has been sitting out in the sun for three days? How about if we chew on some branches? These are all things that other animals, mammals even, look for when they are hungry. Why don't they make our list? Have you ever given your dog a plate of hay, or your pet rabbit a nice, juicy steak? They don't recognize what is offered as food. That all comes down to taste. We eat what tastes good. Do we get to decide what tastes good? Not really. That one is pre-programmed. We evolved to exploit a certain food source, just like every other animal out there. Vegetables taste good. Fruit tastes better. Meat tastes better yet. Why would this be? Just a guess here, but I'd guess that when our tastes in what constitutes acceptable food evolved, vegetables were our primary food source. Occasionally some meat or fruit became available. These food sources have a higher energy density, so we need to exploit them. So evolution made those taste better. Once upon a time, success was determined by your ability to locate and digest high energy food. Those who found the good stuff good tasting succeeded and passed on their genes. Those same genes that guided that pre-historic person in his quest for food drove your choices for dinner last night.

So, in my viewpoint, the hierarchy of decision making power looks something like this:

consciousness < hormones < instinct < evolution

Evolution makes decisions about what is good for a species over hundreds or thousands of generations. The decision to exploit a new food source requires modifications that only evolution can provide. The decision to fill a new niche requires an evolutionary decision. Mere individuals cannot make those decisions ourselves. It would be great to have a third arm or be able to eat and enjoy wood or be immune to all kinds of disease. But that isn't up to me. That's up to evolution.

In future posts, I'll explain just how this colors my vision of the natural world and some of the implications it has on natural relationships. In the meantime, I'd like to say that this is a concept that I am still working out the details on and would love to hear your thoughts.


  1. You say that since no (other) animal has been shown to have consciousness then we are "above" them. Well, our level of consciousness, from what we can tell, is more developed, but in what way are you saying we are *above* them? Frankly I tend to place human life above the life of other animals, but I think that is pretty much evolution. :)

    And your examples of consciousness - who is to say the lizards in my yard do not make conscious decisions on how they get from point A to point B... sure, they tend to use the same paths... habit. How do you prove you have consciousness and a dog or rabbit or fly does not? We tend to plan ahead more - but are beavers planning when they make their dams? Are bees? Again, I do not disagree with you that we have a "higher" level of consciousness, but I am not sure how to show or demonstrate this.

    Heck, who knows: maybe rocks have the highest level of consciousness but cannot move - so the cleverly manipulate us to move them. Why did such-and-such store get built where it did? Ah, the mountain's rocks wanted to be moved. :)

  2. Looks like I need more practice at formulating persuasive arguments. The point I was TRYING to make is that we as humans like to think that consciousness is really the most important and powerful, but that is in fact a fallacy based on arrogance. It also doesn't really matter if other things are conscious are not. They very well may be. Conscious decisions are still the lowest form of decisions, at least of the ones made above. I suppose you could make a random decision, which would be a lower form than consciousness...

  3. Good stuff - if you havent read Dawkin's stuff, like "The Selfish Gene" I highly recommend it. I often use our food preferences and how it has hurt the health of our sedentary modern lifestyle in my high school evolution discussions. I am interested in how different human populations have evolved to exploit different foods, such as high protein and fat utilizing inuit, whose diets would make the average european sick, and the lack of the relatively new lactase gene in non-pastoral "milk" cultures. Another sad example is southwest US natives, whose systems are attuned to lean and even leaner seasons, having a huge diabetes/obesity problem when presented with a modern junkfood diet. - John in VA